This is Chapter 5 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
It was nearly 7 p.m. The building ventilator exhaled air from a remote forest and suddenly here they were. I assume they returned the same way they had vanished, because I hadn’t heard anyone at the elevator or the stairs – and I had been listening, with doors and ears open. I was excited to see them again. Just being in their presence raised my pulse. His eyes swept the room like a wolf beginning his evening prowl. She tossed her head to release a hood that shielded her face from view, and caught me in her gaze. “We must depart,” she greeted me.
“I’ve been ready for hours.” I sounded like the dork who got invited to prom night by the head cheerleader. I tried to regain stature with a businesslike, “Now that you are my clients I need your names.”
“Here is Anwyl and there is Anya,” he replied.
“So you’re doing the Cher and Madonna thing? No last names?”
“No.” His tone dismissed further questions in advance.
I led us into the hall, where we milled around until I walked us to the elevator, where we milled around until I pushed the down button and the G for ground floor. I considered asking about the vanishing or whatever the hell had really happened, but my gut told me to wait. In the lobby, we milled around near the building directory. My name was still not listed there. “Didn’t you say you got my name from the building directory?”
“We had a recommendation from your building,” Anya said agreeably and gestured to the entrance. “Is this our way?”
“Sure,” I let the conversation drop and wondered what her native language was. They weren’t inclined to tell me, so I’d spent the last hour on line, listening to accents, but hers sounded like none of them.
As soon as we got outside, we milled around.
Eventually I determined that they were waiting for me to fetch my vehicle. But I don’t have a car right now; it is on loan to Jenn. Instead – lo, behold, and voilà – I produced a cab. Anyway, that’s how it felt. In Los Angeles taxis are not recurring, yet one happened by just as I formulated the thought, if this were New York we could take a cab. I stepped out in front of the taxi, arms waving like my chest was in flames.
The driver was smoothly bald except for sprays of silver hair projecting from each ear and nostril. The age spots on his scalp suggested the Milky Way, with the Big Dipper rising canted above his right ear. He plucked his teeth with a toothpick then slipped the pick back into his window visor, behind a photo of a very young woman wearing strategic hands and a thong. She shared his broad hooked nose. I hoped she wasn’t his granddaughter.
He slid the car back in gear while I showed my clients how to use shoulder belts. It was a tight fit for the three of us in the back seat. “Where to?” the driver droned.
I was seated between the two of them, felt his leg muscles contract and hers relax. She recited, “Seventeen twenty seven east One Hundred Seven, nine oh oh oh two.”
The driver shoved the gear lever back to Park. “That’s in Watts.”
“Our destination is the Watts Towers,” Anya agreed.
“I don’t drive Watts at night.”
“We’re already your fare. You’re going to make us late!” My voice was a xylophone mallet thudding the high octave bars. I needed to get with it. A good detective would have known the clients’ destination before getting in the cab.
The taxi driver turned to glare at us and she met his eye.
“It is important that we depart now,” she said.
Simultaneously I vowed, “We will pay double.”
I don’t know which of us persuaded him.
No traffic on the 110 South, no traffic on the 105 East, so soon the driver sped through the empty and silent streets surrounding the Watts Towers. He kept his brights on and the window rolled up, blocking enjoyment of a perfect summer evening. His ghetto mistrust embarrassed me. Sure, there was poverty here, and anger; but people are people.
The taxi jerked to a stop about half-way along the deadend street that flanks the Towers. To my right were houses with fans in open doors and windows. It was the time of a summer night when outdoor air is cooler than indoor air. To my left, lights flooded the base of the Towers, their enclosing fence, and their scraggly grounds. Tourists by day and floodlights by night. The Towers were not a considerate neighbor.
Except. How spectacular to live next door, to every day walk out your front door and see it. The crazyass beauty of the Towers. Spindly steel frames rise like a cluster of otherworldly radio transmitters. The steel is covered in cement, and fixed in the cement are broken bits of found objects that, although cemented, have patterns so fluid that a neighbor could step outside the same damn door every day for a decade and never see the Towers the same way twice.
“I’m not waiting,” the driver interrupted my ogling and I realized that my clients had jumped out of the taxi before it stopped moving.
I dragged crumpled bills from a pocket. “Half now, the rest when you come back, and triple time on the way home.” He nodded to acknowledge but not necessarily accept the bribe. The dead end street was too narrow for him to turn around, so he backed up 100 feet to the intersection, then without braking did a 270 and raced for the freeway. Sometimes I have such shame for my race.
My companions were down the block, striding away. “Wait for me!” At my call, silhouettes appeared in the open doorways of more than one home. So somebody was listening to me but it wasn’t my clients, who disappeared around the far side of the Towers’ enclosure. I stumbled after them. Illegal had to be coming soon. How many of the neighbors would be witnesses to whatever we were about to do?
I found my clients on the far side of the fence. On this side of the Towers, the lights were dimmer, considerably so where the duo gripped the fence and peered inside the enclosure. As I caught up to them, I recalled an anecdote about the history of the Watts Towers. Respect and appreciation for the Towers built very slowly, more gradually than the Towers themselves had been constructed. The fence is a fairly new addition to the compound, erected a couple decades ago – and not to protect the Towers from harm. In those days, few saw the Towers as priceless folk art. In fact, people used to climb the Towers. The concern was that someone would fall and not blame himself. The fence went up to prevent lawsuits.
A distant siren grew nearer. Coming for us?
My clients exchanged a glance. Anwyl grabbed the top of a No Trespassing sign and pulled on it to test his weight. The sign held so he swung a leg, used the sign as a step. Faster than you could say breaking and entering, he was perched atop the fence, leaning one arm down to grab Anya’s arm at the elbow. As soon as he hoisted her up, she grabbed my arm to lock our forearms, hand to elbow.
“Quickly,” she instructed me, and I meant to protest but then we were all inside the fence, still clasping arms. I could feel her skin against my arm and hand. It felt like plumeria smells on a warm night with a full moon.
When she released me she laid a hand on the frame of the nearest Tower. “Hello my friend. Would that we met under better circumstances.”
The sirens were louder, so I guessed they had rounded the last corner and were on the Towers’ street. Now that we were inside the fence, the floodlights seemed so bright. Anyone looking for us would have to fight quite a glare to see inside the fence. The shadows might be thick enough to hide us. Maybe we could avoid incarceration after all.
Around me the Towers loomed. This was one of my favorite places and I had always wished I could explore here on my own. Usually you can’t get near the Towers unless you pay to attend one of the scheduled, guided tours. Assuming I didn’t get arrested and/or shot for trespassing, this could be a good night.
How to describe the Watts Towers. Moby Dick, the story of a crazy guy and a big fish. The Watts Towers comprise more than a dozen narrow pinnacles, much taller than they are wide. Each casts a silhouette of an inverted cone, each has a rebar skeleton covered with cement, each has its own design of struts and cross ribs. The two tallest towers are some 90 feet high, one mostly arcs and globes, the other straight struts with sharp angles. The shorter towers echo the styles of the tallest, some with arcs, some with angles. All are inlaid with shards of ceramic tile, glass, rock, shell, and broken dishware, set in chaotic patterns.
An Italian immigrant tile setter named Simon Rodia created the Towers. He purchased, scavenged, and ‘borrowed’ materials, neglected his family, got fired from jobs, and built the Towers with an urgency greater than the need to build a mountain in mashed potatoes. Rodia constructed the structures with untrained engineering savvy – decades later, the Towers passed engineering stress tests. He worked on the Towers, without breaks, for something like 33 years. One day he decreed the project done, moved far away, and never again returned to see his life work, although by all accounts he spoke of it often.
I could describe the colors and materials and patterns of the mosaics, I could sketch the architecture, I could show photos of the whole shebang. What I cannot share is the experience of walking around the Towers and through a man’s soul. Great art is often immortal but rarely more intimate. I can feel what Rodia was feeling when he laid each section. Over 33 years, a person has many moods. Happy, angry, frustrated, despairing, worried, whimsical, pensive, mischievous, enthused — and every so often, at peace. Rodia is the only person I know that I never met.
Outside the fence, boots scuffed concrete and flashlight beams lit swaths a foot across. We hid in one of my favorite spots, next to a wall inlaid with butts of soda bottles that Rodia melted and reshaped in his kiln. The beams bounded toward us in a narrow line like they had our scent, then spread and flowed around the outside of the fence, lights crisscrossing as if to thwart a Blitz staged by ants.
A flashlight beam grazed my toes and I stepped closer to my companions, who gazed up the Tower, searching for something. I was the only one attending to the cavalry outside the walls.
How supple time can be. A voice behind the flashlights yelled, “Got them here, Sarge!” and all the boots changed direction to stomp toward the fence directly outside us. In the brief seconds before they converged outside our location, so much changed.
My companions had their inhalers out. She thumbed a lever and rotated a dial, then showed the setting to him and he turned his dial to match. He hefted a third inhaler that was smaller, looked newer, and had a more rudimentary dial. He thumbed its lever and proffered it to me with a slight smile that blasted me through a quick trip to Endorphin City.
Oh, mama. If I were Stephanie Plum, I would have him before dinner. But my desire was raveled with fear and awe. The sound of converging boots unnerved me, so I focused on his gestured tutorial. Clamp the inhaler between my teeth. Shut my mouth. Hold her hand. Inhale at a steady normal rate. Anwyl released my inhaler and Anya took my hand.
The cops were close enough to touch us, but a Tower wall blocked their view. They would have seen us better if they’d looked in from the fence on the opposite side of the compound. But I wasn’t going to tell them that. A flashlight beam hit my eyes and they teared. Trespassing at least. Why, I could lose my license for this! If I had one!
Trespassing. Enhn. I’ve developed such a make-my-day attitude toward my future that I couldn’t break a sweat about a misdemeanor. I did regret letting my clients get arrested. I didn’t need ESP to predict their preliminary interviews would make a poor impression on the officers. The only good thing about getting nabbed by the cops was that I might learn more about my mysterious companions. Maybe I’d get a peek at some IDs.
The last time I had seen those inhalers, vanishing had ensued. Vanishing might be harmful to my health, but around these two, I was a lemming hypnotized by a snake. One flashlight beam left my eyes and swiveled to shine on its holder. The closest cop made sure I could see him to underscore the seriousness of his recommendation. He told me to explain what I was doing in there and come the hell out.
“Long story,” I told him through clamped teeth and sucked air through my inhaler.
Multiple flashlight beams groped for me and voices snarled Halt!, Don’t move!, and so forth. They no longer concerned me. The last I heard from the closest cop was, “Where the fuck did she go?” I wondered that too.
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